ST. LOUIS – A bungled execution in Oklahoma provides death penalty opponents with a fresh, startling example of how lethal injections can go wrong. But the odds of successfully challenging the nation’s main form of capital punishment will probably hinge on exactly what caused the inmate’s apparent agony.
If four-time convicted felon Clayton Lockett suffered because of a collapsed vein or improperly inserted needle, that would suggest human error was to blame rather than an underlying flaw in the execution system.
If the drugs or the secrecy surrounding them played a role, defense attorneys could have a wider legal opening to attack the injection method, plus powerful new evidence to press the U.S. Supreme Court to get involved, legal experts say.
A day after the execution went awry, attorneys for some death-row inmates began planning new appeals or updating existing cases based on events in Oklahoma.
Many called for moratoriums and independent investigations.
Every prison is saying, We have it under control, trust us,’ said Texas attorney Maurie Levin, who spent Wednesday preparing briefs questioning that state’s execution practices. This just underscores in bold that we can’t trust them, and prisons have to be accountable to the public and transparent in the method by which they carry out executions.
The 38-year-old Lockett, convicted of shooting a woman and watching as two accomplices buried her alive, was declared unconscious 10 minutes after the first of three drugs was administered Tuesday.
Three minutes later, he began breathing heavily, writhing, clenching his teeth and straining to lift his head.
Authorities halted the execution, but Lockett died of a suspected heart attack more than 40 minutes after the process began.
An autopsy began Wednesday to determine the precise cause of death, and Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin named a member of her Cabinet to lead a review of the state’s execution procedures.
The White House said the execution fell short of the humane standards required.
Courts, including the Supreme Court, have been reluctant to halt executions over arguments that they violate an inmate’s constitutional guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment. In four rulings over the past 135 years, the Supreme Court has upheld the use of the firing squad (1879), the electric chair (1890), the ability of a state to try to execute a condemned inmate by electrocution again after a first attempt failed (1947) and lethal injection (2008).
The Constitution does not demand the avoidance of all risk of pain in carrying out executions, Chief Justice John Roberts said in the court’s 2008 decision upholding Kentucky’s lethal injection system.
Still, a minority of the high court has shown some recent trepidation about the secrecy of the process used by many states.
Many states – Oklahoma, Texas and Missouri among them – purchase execution drugs from lightly regulated compounding pharmacies and refuse to name the supplier, whether the drug has been tested, even who is part of the execution team.
If Tuesday’s problems are traced to a collapsed vein, the high court probably won’t feel a lot more pressure to step in, said Thomas Goldstein, an experienced Supreme Court lawyer who also has represented death-row inmates. But if the injection chemicals themselves and the state’s secrecy emerge as important factors, there will be great pressure for them to hear a case and require transparency.